Philip North has withdrawn from his nomination as Bishop of Sheffield. For those of you who are not involved in the Church, the obvious response is ‘so what?’ Many members of the Church of England, however, and many Anglicans elsewhere, know what this is about, and the online networks have been hot with recriminations, tears, quiet satisfaction and much else.
For Bishop Philip is a ‘traditionalist’ who is unwilling to ordain women as priests. Although he has many female colleagues in his present role as suffragan (assistant) bishop in Blackburn, many if not most of whom speak very highly of him, in theory he does not accept that they are truly priests. And yet they share his ministry; he licenses them to posts and in most ways treats them just like his male clergy. It’s a mess.
But it’s a good old Church of England mess. Partly it is a result of the humongous mess that was created when Henry VIII, in the hubris of his own version of Brexit, removed the national church from the authority of the Bishop of Rome. ‘Remainers’ were given short shrift: indeed within a very short time they were being hounded and persecuted. Those who conformed to the new regime soon came to terms with it. But the result was a compromise church. Although some abuses were corrected, many positive features of the old religion were destroyed, while many corrupt aspects remained. The modern spin is that the church is ‘Catholic and Reformed’; the reality was and is more of a mess.
It was a turbulent and bloody era, dominated by one faction after another, until eventually it settled down and the C of E became renowned for an easy-going tolerance and a refusal, in Queen Elizabeth’s phrase, ‘to make windows in men’s souls’. For the last half-century or more until recently, the prevailing tradition has been some sort of liberal compromise.
So the Church of England has always been something of a dog’s dinner. The different factions have managed to co-exist reasonably peacefully for most of the time, sometimes by virtually ignoring the others’ existence. There have been, and still are, some hopeful signs that the extremes are talking to each other more, and beginning to understand each other. But then one issue or another comes along which provokes confrontation, and we see the feathers fly.
And like Hollywood, most of the drama has to do with sex. Or gender at any rate. The movement for gender equality has very largely been won in secular society, at least in principle. But the role of women in the church is still, in secular terms, very much in the dark ages. World-wide, the Orthodox churches seem reluctant to countenance any erosion of the patriarchal priesthood. The Roman Catholic church, despite the very welcome human face presented by Pope Francis, seems equally far from accepting women into ordained ministry.
Somewhat belatedly by the standards of many Anglican churches worldwide, the C of E moved one step at a time towards the full acceptance of women in ministry: first as deacons, then as priests, and only recently, in 2014, as bishops. But there has been and still is resistance. Partly from those few evangelicals who believe in ‘male headship’, but mainly from traditional Anglo-catholics. The compelling reason driving most of them is their reluctance to go against the consensus in the wider Catholic church. So it was seen as politically unacceptable to press on with the ordination of women without measures in place that would safeguard the consciences of these groups.
Those who wanted assurance that they could always receive the sacraments from a male priest or bishop, were allowed parishes that related not to the local diocesan bishop but to a so-called ‘flying’ bishop of whom they approved. At the same time they were assured that they would be an honoured and equal part of the Church of England, and that their priests and bishops would not be discriminated against.
It seemed that the bad-tempered spats of the early years of female ordination, with people on either side being insulted or rudely ignored, were over. Women clergy were quickly accepted and assimilated into the life of the church; some were appointed archdeacons (senior administrators), others deans of cathedrals, and eventually bishops. Some of the most conservative male clergy worked in fruitful partnership with them, including Bishop Philip North who is the centre of the latest storm.
It blew up because Bishop Philip was the first ‘traditionalist’ bishop to be appointed to head a diocese since women were ordained as bishops. Traditionalist in this context meaning someone whose beliefs and conscience would not allow him to ordain women as priests, nor to accept their sacramental ministry. And a backlash against his nomination arose, despite the express support of many women priests both in his present diocese of Blackburn and in the diocese of Sheffield. Many people felt that he would be a divisive figure. And after a bitter row, largely conducted on social media, Bishop Philip felt he had no choice but to withdraw.
The legislation ensuring an honoured and equal place for such traditionalists was of course a compromise. A typically Anglican mess. But the church voted for it. And particularly, the majority who were in favour of equal ordination. The measure would never have passed otherwise. Now however these same voices are implying that the policy is unworkable. The forces that appear to have won in Sheffield are the so-called ‘progressives’ who speak for the majority. These managed to force the ‘traditionalists’ to step back.
By contrast, those who are vociferously against the equal treatment of LGBTI people are increasingly in a minority. They have been so for a long time in secular society, and most surveys suggest that a majority of active Christians are now supportive. However within the Church of England, and especially its leadership and the General Synod membership, there is a powerful conservative lobby. And it is this conservative and vocal minority that on this issue has the upper hand. Those who dissent have been marginalised.
It is all too reminiscent of the current political mood after last year’s referendum. 48% of those voting preferred to remain in the EU, while even some of the most vocal Brexiters held out the hope of some kind of compromise deal (aka ‘soft Brexit’). Now the official opposition is going along with the so-called ‘will of the people’ and the Prime Minister and leading government figures have made a complete U-turn from their policies of twelve months ago.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the policies of the last eight years and even longer, and expert opinion on every subject from healthcare and economics to – most worryingly – climate change, are dismissed in favour of empty populist rhetoric, as the President’s puppet-masters pull the strings for their own (short term) self-interest.
It’s all very Orwellian. Except that instead of one overarching totalitarian regime there are several quasi-totalitarian regimes acting as if anything outside their own ideology is unthinkable. Not just in the sense of too horrible to contemplate, but literally: the alternatives do not fit their mindset and so they are treated as if they didn’t exist.
So, to focus on the issue that we started with. The argument that gender should not be a barrier to holy orders in the Church appears to many as rational and just. The overwhelming majority of Anglicans – including many who identify with the Catholic tradition, such as myself – are in favour, as well as many other Christian traditions. Many Roman Catholics and Orthodox are asking why women should not be priests; even if most bishops and clergy are restrained from criticising accepted teaching, surveys show an increasing amount of lay support. Nevertheless, there are arguments for restricting the priesthood to men, even if they seem weak ones; many Anglican ‘traditionalists’ are simply unwilling to act unilaterally without the backing of the Vatican and the Orthodox churches.
In the case of Philip North it’s the ‘liberals’, or ‘progressives’, that call the tune. It seems to me that they have been behaving as badly as the anti-gay lobby, the Brexiters, or the supporters of Trump. They talk and act as if the other side’s position is totally unthinkable. Just as Theresa May is campaigning for a ‘hard Brexit’ without once acknowledging that she was a ‘Remainer’ just a few months ago, they ignore inconvenient facts by dumping them into an Orwellian ‘memory hole’.
You can’t decry this, and Trump’s ‘post-truth’ agenda, and the conservative evangelicals who close their ears to science and experience, while at the same time simply ignoring the sincere convictions of those who think like Bishop North. Maybe all they want to say is ‘hold on a bit – what about two thousand years of church history and the living experience of the largest Christian bodies today?’ Even the views of ‘progressives’ have developed (well, obviously); everybody has to start somewhere and you can’t just write off people because they haven’t moved as far, or in the same direction, as you.